In Atlanta there used to be great little restaurant called Tortillas, where a person could buy tasty and gargantuan burritos, literally the size of a Nerf football. It was located in a questionable neighborhood, the sound system was usually blasting some kind of gravel in a blender punk music, and the clientele was, um, colorful.
I loved it, and ate there roughly a million times. My apartment was within walking distance, and I’d often hoof it over there after work, order my Land of the Giants dinner, and polish off a Rolling Rock (from their self-serve coolers) while a team of hipsters built my burrito.
They served up “Mexican” that wasn’t anywhere near Mexican – without apology. And was I looking for authenticity? No, I was not. I was looking for really good food, in outrageous quantity, for little money. And that’s exactly what those folks provided.
After we left Atlanta Tortillas was at the top of my list of things I missed most about the city. It had become a comfortable and reliable part of my life. When I heard they’d closed, a couple years later, it seemed impossible. A world without Tortillas? It just didn’t compute.
In California there was a Baja Fresh a couple miles from our house, and we thought it was pretty good. We considered it a commercialized Tortillas rip-off, which was a little irritating, but begrudgingly enjoyed their burritos. We didn’t go there often, but enough to long for it when we moved to Scranton.
“I wish someone would put a Baja Fresh in this town,” was something Toney and I said repeatedly, while considering our options for a quick and cheap lunch.
When a place called Panchero’s opened, we were excited. It was clearly of the same concept: gigantic Americanized burritos in pseudo-hipster surroundings.
But I didn’t like it. The rice and chicken were tasteless, and everything was about 20% too expensive, according to my inner sensor. Yeah, the burritos were large, but there was no flavor. It was like eating a sack of dry cornbread mix. And who wants to do that?
We went to Panchero’s exactly twice, and never returned.
Now we have another contender near us: Moe’s Southwest Grill. They opened on Thursday, and we had lunch there on Saturday – hoping for the best, but fearing the worst.
As we passed through the door the entire staff hollered, “Welcome to Moe’s!” from all corners of the restaurant. This caused the other customers to turn on their heels, and look directly at us. Already, I was irritated.
Their menu featured wacky names for things, like the Joey Bag of Donuts burrito, and the Overachiever taco. This was not starting well…
Toney went with a vegetarian burrito, called the Art Vandalay (I shit you not), and I opted for the Homewrecker, which seemed to offer the approximate lineup of ingredients I prefer. Including grilled chicken.
While we waited for the woman to steam our tortillas, or whatever she was doing, I realized the Homewrecker burrito and the Triple Lindy are exactly the same thing – except one has lettuce on it. Come on! They just wanted another opportunity to be wacky.
Once the tortillas were lying flat on the serving board, it was a lot like Subway. They just shoved them down the length of the thing, and we told them what to pile on the sumbitches. In addition to chicken and rice, I went with cheese, black beans, pico de gallo, sour cream, lettuce, and cilantro.
During the building process the manager (I presume) repeatedly screamed “Welcome to Moe’s!!” at a volume level usually reserved for drunken spectators at bowl games. And the staff would follow a beat or two behind, with much less enthusiasm. I watched their faces during all this, and it looked like they were dying a little inside.
There was a bottleneck at the cash register, and I don’t really like waiting in line for the opportunity to give my money away. But the restaurant was just-opened, so I was willing to give them a little more leeway than usual.
We (finally!) paid for our food, and stopped at the drink station/salsa bar. They’d included nacho chips with our meals, and each of us chose a salsa from five or six options. I went with something relatively mild, because I have nothing to prove.
At the table we unwrapped our burritos, and they were indeed sizable. Like cannonballs, really. And now we were at the moment of truth… Would it be a keeper, or another two-times and we’re out? Would it remind me of the late, great Tortillas, or bag o’ pencil shavings Panchero’s?
And I’m happy to report it was very good indeed. I could actually taste every ingredient, it wasn’t just a big wad of blandness. Everything seemed fresh, and the burrito didn’t collapse at the halfway mark. In fact, it wasn’t messy at all, which is fairly miraculous considering the circumstances.
The chips weren’t the greatest in the world; they were kinda thick and Triscuit-like. But the salsa was really good, which almost made up for it.
Overall, I thought it was excellent. Nothing will ever take the place of Tortillas in my heart, of course, but I’m happy to have a decent facsimile in the neighborhood. I have a feeling I’m going to be logging considerable time there.
In six months, I predict, I’ll walk in and everyone will yell, “WELCOME TO M-! Oh, it’s just that weird guy again…”
I do, however, have one tiny moral reservation about the whole thing… In this article from 2003 the former owner of Tortillas blames Moe’s for the demise of his restaurant, and actually challenges “Moe” to a fistfight. So, in my hunt for a Tortillas alternative I’ll be supporting the very people who killed it off!
It’s like a friggin’ O. Henry short story, or something.
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